Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Witchwood Crown - Tad Williams

The Witchwood Crown is the first in a new series of fantasy novels from Tad Williams. I say a new series – it’s a follow up to his existing “Memory, Sorrow and Thorn” series, the last of which came out in the early nineties. That series was thematically complex, and littered with memorable characters. Fans have been clamouring for a return since the original series wrapped up and here, at last, they have it.

Actually, a prequel novel (which we reviewed here) came out earlier this year, which was a direct follow up to the events of “Memory, Sorrow and Thorn”, and set the stage for this new series. I’d say it isn’t necessary to have read that in order to enjoy this new series, but it does provide some valuable context, and an introduction to some characters which turn up again in The Witchwood Crown.

This is a book which deals with the cost of endings, and the price of new beginnings. Which sounds portentous, but isn’t always. This is Osten Ard after the final battle, after the defeat of the Storm King and his minions – usually the point in the movie where the credits roll and the triumphant orchestral music plays. But here we are forty years later. The High Ward of Osten Ard has rumbled on since the wars, and since a kitchen boy married the Princess and took the throne. If things have been quiet, there are still rumblings of discontent. The Hernystiri, old allies of the kingdom, have a new leader of their own, and he seems less than impressed to be living under legends. To the south, the Nabbani, whose empire was quietly subsumed into the Ward before the original series, are indulging in inter-family squabbles and complex scheming that would make a Borgia shudder. To the north, Duke Isgrimnur, the man who drove the Norns back to their mountain fastness, is unwell. The Sithi, immortal survivors of several cataclysms, and related to the Norns, are mysteriously silent. The kingdom feels perhaps a little complacent, busy with internal politics over external concerns. Williams’ prose is as vividly clear as ever, and quickly brings the world of the Hayholt, the icy regions of the north and other environs back to life.

Most interestingly, it also brings us the Norns. In the original series, they were largely faceless demons, a force antithetical to humanity. In the High Ward, there’s a mixture of the strange and the familiar – odl heroes and new blood, straining against the constraints of a familiar paradigm. The Niorns though, they’re something else. Where some of their interactions are familiar, their affection for family, and for their home – it’s often overshadowed by an uncanny feeling. They live in the bowels of a mountain, servants to the seemingly immortal queen who survived the destruction of their semi-mythical homeland, and is their surviving link to it. This has bred a society with a strict sense of duty, a degree of ancestor worship, and a need for control. For each moment of connection with the Norn, there was something else –a quirk of speech, an assumption of superiority, an emotional distance – which successfully marked them as being alike, but other. If the Norn of the past were monsters, these ones are evocatively alien – and no less terrifying for it. Williams has brought an extraordinary and extraordinarily terrible society to life.

 The heroes of the original trilogy now occupy the higher echelons of the kingdom(s) in one capacity or another, but forty years on, they’re older, perhaps wiser, and surrounded by a younger generation looking to make its own mark on the world. Readers of the original series will no doubt be delighted to see Simon, Miriamele and the rest of the gang again. If some of those figures – Binabik the troll shaman, Tiamak the swamplander – seem almost unchanged, still there’s the suggestion of years having passed. To new readers, I imagine Simon the high king, the commoner-king, may be a noble if conflicted figure, his patience worn down over years of fighting the same battles, his reactions to his grandson and granddaughter those of love mixed with frustration. In the context of the original series, it’s like seeing a man box with himself. The grandson, Prince Morgan carries the younger Simon’s impulsive and restless nature, and a sense of frustrated purpose – and that feeling is very familiar to those who watched Semoan grow up way back when.

Speaking of Prince Morgan – this one is an absolute joy to read. There’s so much going on. The prince is feckless, yes, and something of a rake – more interested in wine and warm beds than in deciding the fate of kingdoms. But he’s also obviously intelligent, and, given the opportunity to do some good, is likely to do so. There’s hints of darker nuances in his relationship with his father, Simon’s son. But what really struck me was the frustration of growing within the shadow of a great man, being defined in a relationship to someone else, rather than for yourself. The story asks what it would be like to be related to the man who saved the world, and extrapolates from there. Morgan lives within the constraints of his family, and if not desperate to do something more, would still rather be doing something. His relationship with Simon and Miriamele seems to be one of frustrated ambition on all sides (as an aside, watching Simon deal with someone with his own temper was a special delight), but it presents that frustration as part of a layered, complex relationship, a shared history which shapes all parties. It helps that in between all his drinking, Morgan is a sharp, witty individual, and his concerns are often valid, if poorly expressed. I’m really looking forward to seeing what he does next.

The plot – well, there’s rather a lot of world building. It’s necessary, and an interesting read. It helps establish the stakes, I think, when we see the high Ward at peace. But like a pot on the boil, simmering bubbles of conflict begin to appear. In many ways this feels like a book of groundwork, of foundation. It’s fascinating stuff, and there’s riots, murders and mysteries aplenty. The last hundred pages or so really steps up the pace, as the metaphorical pot starts to boil over.  I’m struggling to describe things without spoilers, but I’ll say this – if there’s a lot of up-front build up to the narrative, then the payoff by its close is absolutely worth hanging around for.

Is it any good then? Absolutely. If you’re a long term fan coming back for a new look at Osten Ard, you won’t be disappointed. The complex themes, the layered relationships, and the cool magic and swords are all still there, and there’s enough of the old faces mixed in with the new to make it interesting. If you’re coming to the series fresh – well, I’d suggest going back and reading the original first, but I don’t think that you have to; it remains an intriguing, cunningly worked fantasy, and one which will reward a deep reading. In either case, I’d give this one a wholehearted recommendation. 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Tomorrow's Kin - Nancy Kress

Tomorrow’s Kin is the first in a new sci-fi series by Nancy Kress. It opens with a mystery, of sorts – an alien spaceship sat at anchor near the United Nations. But there’s more than first contact at stake.

The world as we know it has changed. Well, a little, anyway. At the start of Tomorrow’s Kin, the social geography feels familiar. New York is still New York – a thriving city of millions, going about its business in a way that the reader is broadly acquainted with. Kress does show us snippets of urban life – there are quiet moments in city parks, and brash, gritty diners. These are contrasted neatly with the quieter, more remote rural areas. Again, this feels like the calm before the storm – the world is one we recognise instantly, and the concerns are similar, if sometimes a little esoteric – damage to the environment, debates over immigration and sovereignty, economic downturns, and who’s going to win the Superbowl. It’s all mostly in the background, but this is our world, the lives we live, and in that context, it’s very convincing.

Of course, in this case, there’s also aliens. Quite what they’re up to, why they’ll only talk to the United Nations, and even what they look like – it’s all something of a mystery. I was reminded of Clarke’s Childhood’s End; the aura of mystery and creeping concern is similar. But these aliens – whatever they may be – are a catalyst for exploring larger ideas. The text follows one family, that of Dr. Marianne Jenner.  Jenner is brought to speak with the aliens after making an unusual genetic discovery – and everything unravels thereafter. Marianne herself is an interesting protagonist – a sharp, smart professional, who is self-aware enough to be confident in her competence but not feel egotistically brilliant. Her two drivers appear to be professional progress, and, perhaps more importantly, her family. She’s convincing as the logical, perhaps slightly frosty scientist; but her internal monologue gives her a vulnerability in thoughts of her family which is equally substantial.

That family is multi-generational – children and grand children – and more than a little troubled. A daughter is a forceful immigration agent, given room to discuss immigration, the economy, and other bête noir. This usually leads to a clash with one of Marianne’s sons – an ecologist, concerned with invasive plant species, rather than with the movement of people. They’re both given the room to be opinionated, their arguments crashing together between the pages. This isn’t a political tract, mind you – but the discussions are engaging, and help indicate both the personalities of the characters, and the state of the world around them (or at least, those parts of it which they’re concerned with). Marianne does have another son, Noah – a wanderer, a wastrel, a man who feels the need to take drugs in an effort to define an identity for himself, lost in the shadow of his siblings.
This is a book which tries to meld the drama of one family – their smaller squabbles and relationships and concerns – into the larger narrative themes it’s wielding. It actually works rather well, letting the broader themes be illustrated in the effects on individual lives. As the story hots up, the focus draws tighter around Marianne, tracking her through decades of discovery, and charting her family and world at the same time.

It’s surprisingly difficult to talk about Tomorrow’s Kin without spoilers, as you can probably tell from the above. But it pulls together some excellent science-fiction threads: it has a big idea, and it follows that idea to a logical conclusion. The story approaches its concepts logically and plausibly – and the trials and tribulations of the characters work, both because they make sense in context, and because we’re drawn into caring about the characters.  Alongside the big idea (or two), there’s a multigenerational family story, one with arcs of personal discovery to match the science happening elsewhere on the page, and with the ability to relate facets of larger debates into a smaller scale, convincingly and in such a way as to make for an interesting read.

It’s not perfect – it feels in some cases that the conceptual stuff, the clever ideas, the “sci-fi” bit, if you like, takes up the page at the expense of further depth of character, especially for some of Marianne’s family. This isn’t an entirely bad thing – the concepts on display are cool, and a lot of fun to read. I guess what I really wanted was a little more; we can care for Marianne, and sympathise with her tribulations, but it feels like there’s room here to tell more stories about her family, and give them a little more room to breathe.

That said, this is an undertaking of impressive scope – a mixture of multigenerational saga and hard science fiction, across geography and time periods, able to talk around some of the big issues of the day, and throw its own ideas into the mix. On those terms, it’s also a successful one – I kept turning pages to see where the story would take me next, and the ambitious and compelling narrative held up to the end. If you’re looking for a solid piece of hard SF, this looks like the start of an exciting new series.



Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Children of the Divide - Patrick S. Tomlinson

Patrick S. Tomlinson’s Children of the Divide is the third in his “Children of a Dead Earth” series. The first gave us a murder mystery on a generation ship. The second dealt with the crises and opportunities of first contact and the pitfalls of colonisation as an ethos.

This book takes pointers from both of its predecessors, like their snappy prose and desire to explore complex, contentious issues in a sci fi setting, and runs with them. There’s a lot going on here – from mining helium three, to kidnappings, local acts of violence backdropped against a larger, fearsome context. But to me, the thing that jumps out about this is this; it’s about consequences. Specifically, both for the characters and the world, it’s able to approach how decisions made decades ago are rippling into society today, and explore the results of those decisions – which are by no means all positive.

This is a world where humanity is starting again, its technology streaming down from orbit to spin up a fairy tale colonial city. There are those who remain orbit, keeping their eyes on the heavens, and those beneath, slowly expanding the settlement below. But there’s also the indigenous sentients, divided in cultural conflicts of their own. Some are happy to take the new arrival’s science, their miracle cures and agricultural tips, and otherwise let life carry on as it always has. Some stream into the city of humanity, building their own homes, their own lives, and their own dreams – becoming something new, escaping the social constraints of time immemorial. Some, of course, would rather do neither, and see humanity driven from their shores entirely. All of these are choices, and they come out of those made in earlier books.

But humanity are hardly the white knights of fiction here; their interactions with the indigenes seem, at best, like benign neglect. There’s a Native quarter, with echoes of the ghetto about it. There’s not enough law enforcement officers from the indigene population. The quarter is poorly supplied with electricity or running water, and there’s a simmering tension under the surface of inter-species interactions. These are big issues, but they also come out of those earlier decisions – where humans and indigenes decided on a non-confrontational relationship – and the unintended consequences, where a power dynamic has been left unexplored and unchallenged. It’s not the worst excesses of historical colonialism, but the parallels are there beneath the surface – the worst impulses of humanity and indigene loitering under their skins.

At the same time, there are some great symbols of the best of both species. Our long time hero, Benson, is now older, slower, more thoughtful. His adopted child, one of the indigenes, is coming of age – feisty, fearless, and ready to shape the world. Zer friends are, as well – sons, daughters and other-gendered entities, all stepping from the shadows of their parents. This is a new generation of protagonists, breaking away from the older traditions of their parents. Quite what they want to shape the world into – be it a multicultural society of tolerance, or something else entirely – well, that’s rather up in the air. It’s fantastic to see this sort of inter-generational handover though, and it’s very plausibly done. The teenagers, of any species, are about as insufferable and idealistic as one might expect; but they’re also a driving force for change, their white hot righteousness making them a pleasure to read, and their complex, conflicted relationships we’ve spent two books investing in giving them a depth and context that only deepens that experience.

It isn’t all ideology and family drama either. For those of you that like your sci-fi with some explosions, I can safely say you will not be disappointed. There’s more than a bit of peril, and if there are moments of violent triumph, or jaw-dropping destruction, the story wants us to know about the consequences of that violence too. The broader issues are blended perfectly into some fast-paced action. There’s betrayals, murders, and, yes, explosions – wrapped around stories about how people treat each other, how things reached the state that they did, intergenerational conflict and, basically, what matters to people.

I’ve always said Tomlinson wrote imaginative, interesting books that more people should read. I’ll say it again now. This is intelligent science fiction, with interesting thoughts on the broader human condition, wrapped in an absolutely smashing story. Catch up with the earlier instalments, then give this a read. 

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Golden Age and Other Stories - Naomi Novik

Golden Age and Other Stories is a short story collection from Naomi Novik, all set in her Temeraire universe – set in the Napoleonic period, with the inclusion of sentient dragons. I’ve really enjoyed Novik’s efforts recently – her Uprooted, which I reviewed last year, was brilliant. So this collection had me quite excited as I went into it.

The collection contains several short stories, and a set of ‘drabbles’, stories of exactly one hundred words. All have accompanying art, which both sets the mood for the associated story and, to be honest, look rather nice on the page.

The first story, Volly Gets a Cow is rather short, tracking Temeraire, the sentient dragon at the heart of the series, as he attempts to get the notoriously unfocused Volly to vote for a dragon member of parliament. Volly is uncooperative, mostly because his attention is focused on his own hunger, and the titular cow. There’s a warmth to this story, the gentle aggravation of Temeraire trying to nudge others into doing something they want to do. We only get quick strokes of Volly and his potential MP here – but enough that their personalities shine through; the dragon representative is a smidge arrogant and abrasive, Volly wooly-headed and, well, hungry. But it’s a cheerful comic tale, showcasing the sort of gentle warmth and humour that sits near the heart of the series, alongside more serious issues – that dragons should be politically represented is an interesting turn, and if it’s only lightly touched on here, still suggests an interesting larger tapestry of events at play.

But it’s not all Temeraire – or if it is, sometimes in a different context. Planting Season for example shows us a dragon in the hinterlands of America, after the convulsions of the Revolution. Here, the dragons acts a bridge between the Native American and European cultures – shuttling goods from one to the other, and stepping between the cultures of both. It’s sympathetic and sharply observed, giving us people on both ends of the trade simply trying their best – and left me wondering how the counterfactual Americas were getting on after the fact; the policy of careful integration suggested here is intriguing, and Novik’s talent for making both colonial-era Boston and the Native American wider spaces feel colourful and alive is in full force.

Then there’s Golden Age, which shows us an alternative meeting for Temeraire and his Captain – the latter sent out to investigate rumours of French piracy, the former, somewhat accidentally, the cause. The dialogue between Temeraire and the Captain here evoked something in the tradition of Aubrey Maturin; both coming to the table as equals, even if one is a naval officer, and the other a thirty-foot lizard which can breathe fire. Here, it seems like the theme is acceptance – as what would be Temeraire sleeps warmly on a beach, gathering treasure and food – and is shocked out of complacency by the arrival of a human with a loud voice, and a willingness to negotiate.

There’s a sense in which several of the stories work better if you’re aware of the larger series; it works as a stand-alone collection, but the context from the wider series helps give it more depth. It was great to see some of the genesis of Roland, for example – a woman with a fine career ahead of her, a forceful personality if ever there was one. As presented, the story of a young woman’s growing into her Captaincy of a dragon, refusing to back down into social expectations, and leading her crew by strength of will and main courage is inspiring and delightful. Knowing what she will go on to do in the broader series gives it the narrative a more complex (but no less pleasant) flavour.

One story that works as a genuine standalone, and which I thought was the highlight of the collection, was Dragons and Decorum. Blending the fictional world of Temeraire with that of Austen, it gives us an Elizabeth Bennett who is a naval officer, leading a dragon crew. Novik scrupulously matches Austen’s prose style, but injects her own energy and enthusiasm. Watching an Elizabeth Bennet with agency approach a nervous Darcy, both still constrained by the customs of manners embedded in society of the period – well, it’s an absolute delight. I laughed, several times, and was transported by the evident genuine emotion growing between the two. Bennett is an active participant here, and all the better for it. If other stories in the collection are love letters to fans, then I’d say this one is a paean to the regency novel genre – one which plays with the conventions of that genre, and produces a fine alloy as a consequence.

The drabbles are fun, leaping across time and space equally, and providing more insight into the Temerire universe. They’re like short mood paintings, and after the main repast that is the collection, make an excellent dessert.

Is it worth buying? Well, if you’re a fan of Temeraire, this may be the last fiction available in that universe. It’s a diverse collection of stories, and there’s something for every fan here – it’ll probably reward your time. If you’ve never read the series before, I’d say it works as a stand alone – but you owe it to yourself to give the other books a try, as they’ll make this collection a richer, more complex experience. 

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Fearsome Journeys - Jonathan Strahan (Ed.)

Fearsome Journeys is a fantasy anthology from Solaris, edited by the remarkably prolific Jonathan Strahan. I’ve enjoyed some of the other Solaris anthologies, and this one looked to have a good mix of authors I knew, and those I hadn’t previously heard of. As ever, I enjoyed some of the stories more than others – but I don’t think there was a bad one in the bunch.

There were several standouts. “The Effigy Engine” from Scott Lynch, combined his sharply charming prose with a vivid world. There’s a certain amount of humour here as well, as a small unit of wizards attempt to help win a seemingly unwinnable war. The banter is familiar for a close knit team, and their personalities are large enough that they step off the page. There’s pyrotechnic thaumaturgy, snark, and a whisper of something deeper. This is a space I’d quite happily explore more of.

I also really enjoyed K.J. Parker’s entry, “The Dragonslayer of Merebarton”. This is probably no surprise to long term readers, who know I’m a massive fan of Parker’s work. Still, the tone here is pitch perfect – a pragmatic, tired knight, a man well past the point of his previous glories, dealing with something unusual. Admittedly, dealing with it with a sort of put upon disappointment, and a fairly deserved expectation that everything will go horribly wrong. There’s some heroics here, of a sort, and meditations on mortality and the virtues of duty. It’s a multi-layered piece, and one with something of a sting in the tail.

Glen Cook’s Black Company short, “Shaggy Dog Bridge” is probably the other main event in this collection, and it’s really rather well done. This is Croaker and his gang of miscreants in their early days, on the run from the Lady and her Taken. It’s a grim story in some ways, with rogue wizards and otherworldy monstrosities. There’s the seeping tone of noir that infuses a lot of Cook’s work, and the troops-eye-view of epic events which has always been the Black Company trademark. It’s a good story, too – occasionally funny, often deadly serious, and always very compelling.

I could go on – as I say, each of the stories inside of the collection is enjoyable. I will say that it feels like there’s something here for everyone. Low fantasy. High fantasy. Grimdark. If it’s got a label, you could probably apply it to one of the stories available here. The diversity of material on offer is impressive – from Kate Eliot’s insightful, nuanced, fairytale-esque story, through Daniel Abraham’s darker tale of an undying king, a narrative in vignettes where the subtext is as valuable as what’s on the page. Elizabeth Bear’s “The Ghost Makers” gives us character driven fantasy, driven by an automaton and a dead man – both of whom stroll off the page, large as life, in between hunting a killer.

In any event, there’s something for everyone here – it’s a collection whose imaginative breadth is its soul. Every tale may not be for you, but they’re all interesting takes on imaginative worlds, and worth investing your time in. (At time of review, it was also all of 99p on Kindle - give it a try!)




Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Court Of Broken Knives - Anna Smith Spark

The Court Of Broken Knives is a strong fantasy debut by Anna Smith Spark. It’s got absolute gads of cynicism, characters who range from the pragmatic through conflicted and into monstrous, and a world which encourages and rewards that sort of approach.

Speaking of the world – well, it’s complicated. There’s the remnants of a global empire – reminiscent of Rome in the late medieval period. They assert sovereignty over the world at large, and have a degree of social and cultural capital – but don’t control almost anything outside of their capital city. Still, that city is a monstrosity of wealth, still gilded by centuries of ruling the world. The street urchins dress in silk, and the decay is, whilst obvious, still masked by the urban grandeur. The mood of sorrowful decline is, I suspect, intentional – as is the feeling of self-inflicted wounds, of coiled vipers, of personal politics poisoning an imperial perspective. Of course, this is an empire in a desert, which doesn’t seem to have much of a sanding army – but does have a religion requiring the sacrifice of children. The cultural attitudes are expertly played here – saddened, but accepting of the necessity.
The empire is surrounded by its more vibrant successor states, which seem to have a more medieval mindset. There’s a fair amount of fortifications and stone walls – and a royal family put in place by a historical ruler who may also have been a demon. They’re prone to bouts of ecstatic madness, entwined with violence – and their people fear and love them for it. This is a tumultuous, often nihilistic world – but also one where there is potential for great beauty, and for the realisation of the better traits of humanity.

There’s a rough quartet of protagonists. Two of them sit within the remaining Imperial city. One is the High Priestess of their somewhat brutal god – a woman circumscribed by circumstance, with the potential to be more, restricted by her own power and position. She’s clever, observant, and, for someone who sacrifices children on a regular basis, surprisingly sane – but there’s twinges of visible damage there, and a recognition that perhaps the world isn’t limited to the walls of her temple. The contrast between her and one of the others, a hardened politician, a noble of the empire, is, I suspect, intentional. He’s wry, jaded, and not at all surprised by the worst in people – but at the same time, driven by the dream that was once his home, in an effort to sustain and create something better. There’s a vivid characterisation here, of a man in power, who has no interest in his wife sexually, but cares for her; who is prepared to enact horrors on old friends in the service of an ideal; who can be tormented by their own success, and justify it as failure being the worst option. Both of the imperials are vividly, cleverly portrayed – they certainly feel like people, if perhaps not people you would want to take out to dinner.

The others – well, I have great affection for Tobias. A mercenary squad leader, he’s thoughtful, always has an eye on the main chance, and is not at all afraid to turn his reflections into brutality if that’s what’s required. He’s ever-so-slightly conflicted, a everyman with more than an edge of darkness about him – surviving in a world which caters to and demands the use of his worst instincts. For all that he makes abhorrent choices, they are plausible, logical ones – and his tarnished view of the world is at once strange and familiar.

Then there’s another – one of Tobias’s band of mercenaries, he’s an enigma at first. Tormented by unknown demons, driven by unknown curses. If there’s a space here, it’s one of emotional distance or connection, switching from a need to escape the world to being bathed in it – usually in blood. This is a man who is sure of what he could be, but trying to escape it – through drugs, through drink, through murder. This last is one that is more difficult to sympathise with – but a complex, believable character, one whose emotional intensity and validity rises out of the prose, and makes it into something special.

The plot – well, there’s all sorts. Here are high politics, and low murder, often in one. Political assassinations as knife fights, gutters and blood, coarse language and red in the gutters. There’s also magic – explosive, typically, unpleasant, almost always. There’s plots, counterplots, and appallingly visceral battles. There’s something for everyone here, if you’re not squeamish about how you get it. The dialogue is typically snappy, with moments of emotional transcendence; the pacing is spot on, and I had to keep on turning pages to see what happens next. There are highs and lows here – the latter perhaps moving to contempt or to tears, the former transporting to joy.

I guess what I’m saying is, it’s good stuff. This is smart, self-aware fantasy. The characters make sense, are easy to invest in, and reward that investment. The world is complex and believable. I’m really looking forward to seeing where this series goes, and I urge you to give it a try.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Senlin Ascends - Josiah Bancroft

Senlin Ascends is the first in Josiah Bancroft’s “Books of Babel”. If I had to summarise, I’d say it’s the novel of one man’s journey. That journey is, of course, geographical – he moves ever upward through the levels of the eponymous tower, being enveloped in the strange societies, cultures and politics which hold sway there. But it’s also personal. The Senlin who begins the journey up the tower – well, he changes, and grows as the narrative proceeds – and not always for the better.

Senlin Ascends has a baroque, imaginative world. Along with Senlin, I was often left somewhat flabbergasted by the people whom he encountered. There were the showmen and grifters at ground level, of course – small time thieves and hustlers, charmers and liars. They exist within the constantly stirring entrance of the Tower, a first level fuelled by tourists and victims. At the same time, there’s a sparkling, carnival atmosphere to it – one where the barkers have sharper teeth hidden behind their smiles. But things only get stranger the further up the tower one goes. Each step is increasingly surreal, each movement away from the base also a step further into the machinations, machineries, and villainies of the increasingly bizarre denizens. There’s a sense here of Alice in Wonderland, with a cutting edge. I can’t say much about the rest of the environs without touching on spoilers – but I will say this: the tower is a fresh, imaginative tapestry of diverse, colourful locales, and it successfully conveys a sense of energy and corruption in one word after another. This is a roaring, virile place, crackling with life – and at the same time, is shot through with rot, coiled serpents just waiting to fall upon the unwary visitor. In other words – it’s great.

The characters…well, they’re an odd bunch, that’s for sure. Senlin is the protagonist, and walks into the tower at least as baffled as the reader, if not more so. He’s a man who has been shaped by his circumstances – a teacher in a fishing village. In fact, the only teacher in the village. He’s intelligent, with an unconscious air of superiority. He cares about his pupils – though with a degree more enthusiasm for the intelligent ones. He feels like a prim, proper man, confined within his own expectations – a self-constrained avatar of social mores. Still, there’s a wit and an incisive intelligence there, and, it appears, a passion. Senlin is in love with his wife – and he’s a romantic and an idealist. His romance is one of the great backdrops to his life, a brilliant surprise he’s determined to hold onto with both hands. Here the flames of his personality peek out a little behind his enforced façade. Senlin walks with the reader, a narrator in the tower – and his passion and his restraints on it serve to make him feel very human.

Indeed, as the text progresses, Senlin’s internal geography shifts along with the external. Events force him to decide what sort of man he is, and exactly what he will do to accomplish his goals. The man who enters the ground floor of the tower for a honeymoon – well, let’s just say he may not be quite the same man that nears the top.

There’s a delightful crowd of assorted misfits alongside Senlin as he travels. They’re not all entirely trustworthy, and some of the antagonists are downright unpleasant. Still, when they’re given the time to shine, they do – be that in impassioned speeches on the human conditions, or in the odd brutal murder. In each case though, they’re imaginatively, convincingly portrayed – strange to us, but perhaps not strangers, in the broader sense. As the journey continues, they don’t become any less strange – but also become more familiar; it’s cleverly done, and left each of the supporting cast feeling memorable as I turned the pages.

The plot – well. As ever, no spoilers. Senlin is working his way through the tower hunting his wife. Along the way he’s exposed to the best and worst that the tower has to offer, from beer fountains to sky-ships, from loving families to murderous lunatics. The story is in the journey, in how Senlin adapts and changes in the face of challenges thrown up to him on each floor of the tower. There’s shades of Moby Dick, the protagonist driven to fulfil his heart’s desire, even with the associated costs. In any event, it’s a cracking read – there’s betrayals, firm friendships, battles, banter, and even true love. It’s a charming, fascinating piece, and I highly recommend it.